Hiring for a data job? Think carefully about the job description

Job titles can be a minefield. Barmen are now “mixologists”, secretaries are “personal assistants”, and binmen are “refuse disposal technicians”.

There's much more involved in finding the right staff than simply posting an online advert.

Yet, when it comes to the technology sector, getting the job title right can hold the key to finding the ideal recruit. Being more accurate about roles’ names and descriptions is one of the top tips for clients from Robin Huggins, director of academy and client services at Glasgow-based recruitment firm MBN Solutions.

“A lot of companies think they want to recruit a data scientist – but they don’t,” he explains.

“They want something far more specific – they may want an ‘algorithm engineer’ or a ‘machine learning expert’ or an ‘analytical insight consultant’.

“‘Data scientists’ used to be people in very specific roles in universities or government agencies, with a very specific set of skills when it came to problem solving, while ‘analysts’ tended to work in industry on smaller scale data. With the advent of the internet and then cloud storage, data analysts could suddenly work with much larger sets of data and started to call themselves data scientists.

“Social media and open-source technologies make the situation even more confusing. Now there’s a vast amount of data being held in the cloud and even more tools out there with which to analyse it.”

When it comes to recruiting for such specific roles, Huggins suggests that better selection processes could be used. “I often tell corporate audiences that if they’re using the same techniques to recruit ‘data scientists’ as they do for other roles like information technology (IT) project managers, they’re probably missing a trick,” he says.

“A series of face-to-face interviews may not be the best way to select somebody whose primary role is going to be mathematical and computational. It might well be that bringing them in for an afternoon group test may be a better way of evaluating their suitability.”

Being specific when shaping the job title and getting the selection process right are just two pieces in a much bigger recruitment jigsaw puzzle. With Scotland’s reputation for creating and growing top tech businesses, from Codebase and Techcube start-ups through to $1 billion unicorns Skyscanner and FanDuel – there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill all the available roles.

Trade body ScotlandIS has calculated that the industry needs to recruit about 12,500 people each year, with only around 5,000 candidates emerging through traditional routes such as apprenticeships, colleges and universities.

The skills shortage means that candidates can have their pick of jobs, placing the emphasis on prospective employers to make themselves as attractive as possible to would-be recruits.

“I want to see organisations becoming ‘talent magnets’,” says Huggins. “The way you become a talent magnet is that you don’t wait for talent to come to you.

“Instead, you accept firstly that every individual within your organisation has a responsibility for talent magnetism and secondly that, whatever the forum, there should always be a branded message that goes out to people that suggests that they might want to have a conversation with you about joining your business.”

Talent magnetism

Huggins points to Scotland’s flourishing tech community as one of the avenues through which to turn each member of staff into an ambassador for their employer. Going along to events at hubs such as Codebase and Techcube, and taking part in tech meet-ups, including those run by MBN, should be high on the agenda.

He reels off a list of major gatherings – including DIGITExpo, Turing Fest and those organised by The Data Lab – where employers can get their people out and about, instead of relying on posting adverts on jobs boards or LinkedIn.

“Act as a talent magnet and you will magnetise people, they will gravitate towards you,” he adds.

Huggins’ “talent magnetism” can also work at an industry-wide level. He says that having women in senior data roles – from Appointedd founder Leah Hutcheon and Sustainably chief executive Loral Quinn, through to Aggreko head of analytics Elizabeth Hollinger and IBM’s Sharon Moore – will help to attract women to come and work in the industry.

“They’re seeing that not all the superheroes in an organisation are stereotypical anymore,” he says. “There are women superstars too – you can identify your heroine.

“We’ve noticed through the cohorts of students that we’ve worked with on Data Labs’ master of science degree programme that female participation is becoming more evident. That’s encouraging to see.

“It’s not just about gender diversity though – we are seeing encouraging signs on broader diversity issues too, such as a variety of social inclusion programmes. It’s like catching fish – if your net isn’t big enough then you’re not going to catch the right ones.”

It’s also not simply about recruitment for Huggins. He highlights the need to nurture talent from within an organisation’s existing staff.

“I know of two financial services firms, for example, that have looked at their employees in customer-facing roles and asked if it would be possible to train them to become data scientists,” he explains. “I would always advocate looking inside a company first to see if a development programme could be put in place to give people the skills they need.

“One of the reasons why Scotland is being hailed as potentially becoming Europe’s data capital is because organisations are doing these two things – they’re looking at new ways to attract external talent and they’re looking carefully at the people already within their organisation to see if they could be trained to have the skills their clients need.

“They already have skills A, B and C – can we teach them D? That’s how I’d do it.”

There was a time when most candidates only wanted to know about the salary, bonus and pensions at interview stage. But now a range of questions, from gym access to student loan repayments, are being asked – and ethics is nearing the top of that list.

“Prospective candidates want to know about the ethics of the company that’s advertising a job,” says Huggins. “They want to make sure that the business is using data ethically and that its ethos can match their own.

“Having worked in this space for 20 years, I know that abuse of data has always been an issue. But two things have brought the issue to a head – the scrutiny of how Cambridge Analytica and Facebook used people’s data, and also the introduction of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which made us all more aware about data as consumers.”

Huggins says candidates’ interest in data ethics was also seen in questions asked about corporate social responsibility and the environment. “I wouldn’t say it’s a generational thing, because it’s candidates of all ages, but it’s definitely more prominent now.”

For more information, visit https://www.mbnsolutions.com/.